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Ashton Lewis, Springfield Brewing Co. brewmaster, and Bryan Bevel, the restaurant's director of operations, lead a six-member investor group that purchased Springfield Brewing Co. on Nov. 28.
Ashton Lewis, Springfield Brewing Co. brewmaster, and Bryan Bevel, the restaurant's director of operations, lead a six-member investor group that purchased Springfield Brewing Co. on Nov. 28.

Investor group takes crack at Springfield Brewing Co.

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The new owners of Springfield Brewing Co. can say they’ve bought a place where everyone knows their names. In fact, a couple of them might already be behind the bar.

A group of friends familiar with its operations ponied up enough to purchase the craft brewery last week for $3 million from Paul Mueller Co. (OTC: MUEL.PK).

The sale of the brewery and restaurant, which closed Nov. 28, includes a promissory note for $400,000 payable during the next five years.

Ashton Lewis, Springfield Brewing Co. brewmaster, and Bryan Bevel, the restaurant’s director of operations, put together a group of friends and fellow investors to form Front Row Property LLC and make the purchase. Other investors are Rhett Smillie, a broker with Keller Williams Realty; Cam Collins of Malone Finkle Eckhardt & Collins Inc.; Christina Chanter, a property investor; and John Schnoebelen of Murney Associates Realtors. Bevel said the group obtained a U.S. Small Business Administration-backed loan through Liberty Bank.

Springfield Brewing Co. has operated as a restaurant, brewery and showcase for Mueller Co.’s stainless steel brewery tanks since it opened at 305 S. Market Ave. in 1997.

Mueller Co. president and CEO David Moore said negotiations with the buyers lasted for more than a year. The stainless steel manufacturer retained the right to bring in prospective clients to examine its brewery equipment in action. Mueller Co. sells stainless steel brewery equipment to clients such as Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co.

“The brewery was established as a showcase for our products, and it served that purpose well for 14 years. Its operations were not core to (Mueller Co.’s) business … but it has been a success,” Moore said, declining to discuss revenue figures.

Bevel said he, Collins and Smillie – all members of the Springfield Rugby Club – had talked about buying Springfield Brewing Co. for years.

“Front Row Properties was formed out of a friendship between three rugby players and one of our good friends, who happens to be Ashton Lewis, the brewmaster,” Bevel said. “We had talked about this during holidays and at rugby games off the cuff for a while. When the opportunity came up, we put together a serious group and had a couple of others partners that came on as interested parties.”

Smillie, the real estate agent, said Lewis and Bevel went to him for help with establishing Front Row Property before beginning negotiations with Mueller Co. around July 2010. He said every member of Front Row brings certain skills to the table that should help the company grow.

“It wasn’t just a money issue – that is a lot of money to try and get together especially in this economy – there was a lot more to it. I may have expertise in real estate, Ashton has expertise in brewing and Bryan has expertise in operations management. All of the members have areas of expertise that complement each other, and that was the most appealing reason,” Smillie said.

Bevel said the company’s more than 50 employees have been retained, and he expects to make an announcement regarding plans for the business’ future after the first of the year. He said the group doesn’t have any current plans to open new restaurants, but it is working to make its beer available at a growing number of retail locations.

“Those plans are already in motion. We currently bottle beer here on site, and we’ll continue to do that. And we will seek further exposure for our craft beer,” Bevel said, declining to discuss Springfield Brewing Co.’s revenues or growth projections.

The downtown establishment produces six varieties of ales and lagers for the restaurant and its two retail partners, Brown Derby and Price Cutter.

Bevel stopped short of comparisons to Springfield startup Mother’s Brewing Co., which has secured more than 260 locations, including Wal-Mart, since launching in May.

“Ashton Lewis has been making quality beer for 14 years. We don’t need to replicate anything. Mother’s has done a very good job of educating the public on craft beer, and we’re a craft brewer, so we’ll take what that brings,” Bevel said, adding that he knows Mother’s Brewing owner Jeff Schrag and counts the company as an ally. “There’s room enough for both of us, that’s for sure.”

U.S. craft breweries – those producing up to 6 million barrels and half of its volume in malt beers – are experiencing a season of growth, according to the Brewers Association. Craft beer sales through mid-2011 are up 15 percent compared to the same period a year ago. The association said in 2010, craft beer production volume grew by 11 percent, while revenue increased by 12 percent. Still, beer produced by small, independent brewers represents only 6 percent of the beer sold nationwide.

Jeremy Wicks, Mother’s Brewing director of sales and marketing, said he’ll cheer on any advances in the local craft brewery scene.

“The more craft beer the better. It’s such a small portion of total beer sales not only in the country but in southwest Missouri, that I think the more awareness that there is for craft beer the better it is for everybody,” Wicks said.

Smillie, who brokered the sale of Lewis’ house when he moved to Springfield to take the job as brewmaster at Springfield Brewing Co. in 1997, said Mueller Co. officials had to be convinced that the deal was worth making.

“They didn’t want to sell, which was part of the reason that (negotiations) took so long. We had to, first, talk them into selling and, second, prove that we were capable,” Smillie said.

Springfield Brewing Co. has picked up eight medals at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo., according to SpringfieldBrewingCo.com.[[In-content Ad]]

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